As the modern work world changes for many—as remote work, alternative hour structures, and automation dominate the economic landscape’s new changes—it can be easy to forget that many millions of people around the world work non-traditional work hours of another type—shift work. And for those who clock in after dark and hop in bed in the early morning, shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) can become a serious threat to their mental and physical health. Difficulties adjusting to a different sleep/wake schedule can cause conflicts with your ability to sleep when you need to sleep. If you are one of the millions of full-time workers who does shift work, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of shift work sleep disorder and how to alleviate the difficulties caused by it.
Why Does Shift Work Sleep Disorder Happen?
Our bodies require sleep for several key reasons, chief among them consolidating memories and providing time for physical restoration of the brain, so it’s important that you get an adequate amount of sleep regularly. Sleep is vital to many essential functions of everyday life, but it’s not enough to get some shuteye here and there, you should get adequate sleep for 7-9 hours every night, preferably on a regular schedule.
Shift work sleep disorder tends to occur when your work schedule takes place during normal sleeping hours and your body’s natural circadian rhythm is unable to cope with an atypical sleep regimen. Though it doesn’t happen to everybody who works the night shift, it’s difficult for most to adjust to sleeping through the day and staying awake (and alert) through the night. Our circadian rhythm—the internal clock that guides our sleeping and waking schedules—naturally follows the pace of the sun rising and setting, a biological feedback loop in which our very genes develop and break down proteins that tell us when it’s time to rest. Circadian rhythm is part of every living thing, from humans to plants.
When you suffer from shift work sleep disorder, you are at risk of all sorts of issues caused by lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep, whether you’re staying up all night to study or working the graveyard shift, can be hazardous.
How Do I Know if I Have Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
You may suffer from SWSD if you do shift work and your symptoms include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Inability to remain alert during waking hours
- Lowered productivity/inability to finish tasks
- Insomnia—whether you’re unable to sleep or unable to fall asleep quickly
- Difficulty with concentration
- Feeling unrefreshed after sleep
- General lack of energy
- Irritability or depression
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
Most people who work the night shift will experience one (or several) of these symptoms, especially when initially starting on a new schedule—it takes time to develop the ability to flip or even alter your circadian rhythm’s natural expectations. If you suffer from shift work sleep disorder, however, you’ll find these symptoms not only persist, but begin to interfere with life, work, and your general sense of well-being.
Dangers of Shift Work Sleep Disorder
There are many dangers associated with SWSD, and not just to yourself! The negative psychological toll that prolonged poor sleep quality takes doesn’t only affect your body and brain, it affects the safety and relative comfort of those around you. It’s important to remember that if you’re suffering from a lack of sleep, somebody nearby is probably dealing with your symptoms secondhand, whether that means having to pick up where you left off on the job or putting in extra emotional labor to deal with difficult times. Some of the dangers include:
- Work-related errors or accidents, which in some workplaces can lead to serious injury or even death.
- Poor coping skills or impaired social functioning, putting strain on friends, family, and coworkers
- Health related issues ranging from cardiovascular disease to metabolic problems
- Drug and alcohol dependency, often as a means to fall asleep or alter mood
- Chronic insomnia
- Irritability and mood swings
- Drowsy driving
- Morning headaches (your morning, as dictated by your shifts)
- Increase in illnesses like cold or flu
- Poor cognitive function and decreased memory retention
- Short term memory loss
- Losing work due to the above issues impacting your work ability
How to Alleviate Shift Work Sleep Disorder
The best thing you can do to alleviate shift work sleep disorder is to stop working shifts that keep you from following your natural circadian rhythm altogether. We also recognize that this is an impractical solution for most folks doing this kind of work (and that the gears of capitalism will always have somebody burning the midnight oil). In lieu of quitting your job, here are some things that can make SWSD more manageable:
Bright Light Therapy
Exposing yourself to special artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light not only helps your body get back its circadian rhythm, but can treat seasonal affective disorder and other common sleep disorders. Because light therapy affects brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, it can alleviate the difficulty of shift work sleep disorder (and sometimes get you back on track completely).
Probably the most popular supplement for helping one fall asleep and stay asleep, melatonin is a natural hormone produced by your pineal gland (in the brain) that signals when it’s time for you to wind down and fall asleep. It’s not without flaws, but it can certainly help ease the difficulty of sleep transitions.
Other Sleep Medications & Supplements
Less popular but still important options include GABA, L-Theanine, Trazodone, Rozeram, and Doxepin. Do some research or talk to a sleep doctor about what might be the best option to help you get the restorative sleep you deserve, no matter what hours you work!
Clockwise Shift Rotation
If your work (or boss) allows for it, scheduling your shifts in a clockwise rotation can help make it easier to cope with night work. If your next shift time is later than your previous shift, it’s easier to adapt to your schedule because it’s easier to stay up late than it is to go to bed early.
Good Night… or Should We Say Good day?
Good sleep is essential for a comfortable, healthy, and long life. If your type of work demands unreasonable hours, late nights, and long shifts, take an objective look at what it’s costing you. If you’re always tired, developing sleeping disorders, or generally having difficulty maintaining things, you might suffer from shift work sleep disorder, something you can not only fight back against with treatment, but cure completely by embracing your limitations and personal needs.